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Prison camps stopped recording deaths of prisoners under Kim Jong Un

Seol Song Ah  |  2017-11-17 13:02
As market activity declines due to increased economic sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs, residents are turning to more clandestine economic activity, leading to a rise in arrests and incarceration in the nation's prison camps. The situation is deteriorating as reports of human rights violations show no signs of abating.
In the Norths correctional labor camps (kyohwaso) and labor education centers (kyoyangso), it is common for prisoners to be beaten until almost dead, and they are often pushed to the brink of starvation. The food they receive is barely edible, mainly consisting of boiled corn porridge. A full day's hard labor is demanded every day, frequently resulting in beatings if the work is not carried out to the satisfaction of the guards. 
One such prisoner who was locked up in solitary confinement for an entire week simply for dividing their meager food and giving it to others stated that, "we were not considered humans."
Daily NK spoke with this former prisoner, who was imprisoned at the disciplinary labor center in Tongrim, North Pyongan Province about their one-year imprisonment and the conditions there. The source spoke on condition of anonymity for the fear of his and his family's safety.
Daily NK (DNK): Can you tell us when the labor education center in Tongrim was established and how many prisoners it houses?

Former Prisoner: It was established in 2011 when the Tongrim Correctional Labor Camp (known as Correctional Labor Camp No. 2) shut down. The prisoners detained at the former Tongrim Correctional Labor Camp were transferred to Kaechon Correctional Labor Camp.

The facilities are being converted to handle prisoners deemed to have committed serious crimes constituting at least a one-year sentence. The previous facilities simply could not handle the types of intense labor that the prisoners are forced to undergo as a result of these more serious sentences. In 2015, there were approximately 600 people imprisoned there, with about 200 females and 400 males housed in separate areas. 
DNK: Do you know why the Tongrim Correctional Labor Camp was suddenly shut down?  

Former Prisoner: I cannot say for sure, but I have heard rumors that it was related to the rise in Chinese tourist numbers coming across through Sinuiju, and the notorious reputation of the camp. 
Sometime towards the end of 2015, Tongrim was named a destination for tourism by the government, and the sudden closure of the labor centers in the area roughly coincided with this. It seems that word of North Korea's human rights violations in the camps was initially spread by the tourists who visited the area and was then picked up by the international media. 
DNK: Can you describe the prisoners' experiences at labor education centers and how they are assigned to different tasks throughout their stay?
Former Prisoner: When new prisoners enter, they are separated into their own group for the first month, doing construction work and other labor inside the center while attending education sessions. They are beaten from the start, and are careful not to miss any sessions or complain about the intensely difficult work for fear of further consequences. 
After the first 30 days, they are placed in another group specific for the type of work they will be doing, such as raising livestock or agriculture - two groups into which the prisoners typically try to bribe their way into and which only require a 1 or 2 month duration. You can also receive relatively easier tasks or become a group leader if you bribe the guards. There were about 20 people who bribed their way into better positions such as group leaders, informers, medics, maids, and other relatively better positions. 
Regular prisoners do not wear any specific uniform, but the women must wear white headscarves, and all of them must wear a black triangle on their left arm. Group leaders wear red triangles, and medics wear a cross. 
Members of the donju (newly-affluent middle class) also come through the disciplinary labor center, but are able to avoid the first 30 days of hard labor and move straight to better positions by paying bribes before entering. Even if there are no open spots for them, the camp's management typically creates some kind of position for them to oversee the labor of others in the fields or warehouses, guaranteeing them a much easier time. They can even give bribes in US dollars to be granted a kind of parole for illness or exemplary behavior. For a typical crime, the going rate for a bribe is about $100 USD per month of commutation - so $500 will get a prisoner out 5 months early. The amount demanded can of course be higher though.

DNK: What kind of work are prisoners made to do on a daily basis?

Former Prisoner: The group leader comes around at 5:00 am yelling at everyone to wake up. After about a 30 minute morning inspection, work begins, and then at 7:00 am a meager breakfast is dished out. Lunch and dinner is eaten while still at the workstations, and the prisoners stay there throughout the entire day until they finally just pass out right there from exhaustion at maybe 11:00 pm. But those without family members able to bring extra food on visitation days work continuously, until maybe 3:00 am, taking on the quotas of others in exchange for a bit of their extra food. This was the only way these prisoners can survive.

Then on Wednesdays we had to attend self-criticism sessions. Unlike correctional labor camps (re-education camps), they dont confiscate your identification card at labor education centers, so you are grouped with your organization (Party, Workers Alliance, Womens Union, etc.). We also receive lectures about Kim Jong Un, or when the North tested another missile, and received heavy propaganda about the strength of our nation. 
DNK:  And what kind of labor is done at the camp?
Former Prisoner: Prisoners usually complete from 6 months to 1 year of forced hard labor, men and women alike. We had to manufacture fake eyelashes, each receiving a quota of at least 12 sets per day, working in tiny desks just 50 cm wide for the entire day. This was where we worked, ate, and slept.

Younger prisoners are faster and more able, but older prisoners' eyes and backs begin to tire after this kind of work. If a prisoner can't meet their quota, they only receive a half portion of their meals and often end up collapsing from overwork and malnutrition. Sometimes others attempt to give some of their food to these prisoners, but if they are caught, they are sent to solitary confinement for a week. There, you only receive 100 g of food per day. When I was thrown into solitary confinement for doing this, I was so cold and hungry that I thought I was dead.

If a person fails to meet their quota a second time, the guards beat them up to set an example. I heard that there was a female guard that beat the female prisoners even more viciously than the male guards. I felt that they really did not consider us as humans by the way they beat us so harshly, sometimes to death, just so the regime could earn a bit of foreign currency by exporting the fake eyelashes to China. 
DNK: Do prisoners receive any treatment if they fall ill or are severely injured?

Former Prisoner: There was a doctor at the camp who would select a higher ranked prisoner with medical experience to assist them. But it would be wrong to think that all of the prisoners received care from the doctor. I know that prisoners who collapsed on the job didn't receive any help. Only when someone had a very serious illness or injury would the group leader alert the doctor. There were 4 beds in the small infirmary, and the staff would notify the prisoner's family when they were admitted. 
But of course this was so that the family could bring medicine if they could, and if they could not, the prisoner would not receive anything. They would never send a prisoner to a proper hospital, even if they were dying. Once when I caught the flu, I was able to contact my family and have them bring medicine. While I was there, I was able to take a peek at a book detailing 5 years of medical records for the infirmary. In 2011, 50% of the prisoners succumbed to their illnesses, but for some reason these numbers decreased from 2014, according to the records. 
DNK: Why do you think the numbers dropped off so suddenly like that?

Former Prisoner: When Kim Jong Un came to power, he questioned the officials that oversaw the  labor education centers and correctional labor camps about the high death rates. The result was that prison officials were instructed not to record the deaths of overworked prisoners, so the numbers improved thereafter. They also began collecting food from visitors, who would often bring about 10 kg or so of corn powder or other food items, siphoning off 10% to feed to the prisoners on the verge of death, before selling the food back to the visitors.
DNK: Were there specific visitation days?

Former Prisoner: Visitations were allowed once a month at the correctional labor camp, and once every couple of days at the labor education center. They would have to first come to the camp to register and schedule a later time for their official visit. Family members would often bring food when they visited, but the officials would always order them to bring additional items such as equipment that the camp needs. There was an understanding that if they did not bring the requested items, there would be consequences. 

DNK: And how were the prisoners able to eat the food brought to them by their families?
Former Prisoner: The guards organized a specific time for the prisoners to line up and receive a portion of the food brought by the families. We received a corn powder in a plastic bag, whereupon we would fill it with a bit of water from the bathroom water tank, mix it up in the bag, and eat it. After finishing, we had to line up and be searched by the higher ranked prisoners to make sure we hadn't stolen any extra, and of course would be punished if caught.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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